During the last week of August, I had the opportunity to visit Hull in the Northeast of England. Hull was named the 2017 UK City of Culture and as such has been promoting exhibitions, events, programmes, and initiatives throughout the year. I only had one day to spend in Hull and I decided to use that time to go to the Wilberforce House Museum – I think it was time well spent.
Before I begin my review, I would like to provide some context and background for readers who may be unfamiliar with the UK’s relationship with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Britain profited heavily from slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. According to the UK National Archives, the UK together with Portugal was responsible for 70% of all African peoples transported to the Americas. The labour of enslaved people increased the wealth and power of British elites who owned and operated plantations in the British colonies in the Americas. Others benefited as well – merchants, shipping company owners, factory owners, bankers – even entire cities such as the ports of Liverpool and Bristol were the beneficiaries of this trade.
William Wilberforce was a famous campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. He was born in Hull in 1780. He was very interested in humanitarian reform and his evangelical religious views spurred him to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. As a member of Parliament, he was well placed to do so. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished the slave trade in Britain. Enslaved people were still held in bondage, however, until 1833 when slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies. Wilberforce died a month before this bill was passed but had lived long enough to know that what he had campaigned for for the majority of his life would pass.
The Wilberforce House Museum is located in the house where Wilberforce was born. Exhibitions are woven through the original rooms but this is not a house museum in the sense of having period rooms. Rather contemporary displays with text panels, multimedia interactives, and display cases with objects are attractively integrated into the space.
The exhibitions in the house speak to the following themes: History of the House, William Wilberforce, Slavery, Abolition, Contemporary (Modern Slavery, Human Rights, and the Legacies of Slavery), and Georgian Houses. During my visit, I spent my time in the galleries related to William Wilberforce, Slavery, Abolition, and Contemporary Slavery.
The History of the House and the gallery devoted to William Wilberforce provide a gentle introduction to the rest of the museum. Visitors become acquainted with the building and with William Wilberforce. I was very drawn to a portrait hanging just in the entry way to the William Wilberforce gallery. Slaves in Chains or the Captive Slave attributed to John Simpson is an image that I remembered from my history books growing up in the United States. In person, the portrait is even more striking. Learning that the sitter is thought to be Ira Aldridge, a Shakespearean actor, filled me with more questions than the interpretation answered. I wondered about his experiences as a black actor in Europe.
The power of the portrait was off-set by a new computer animated audio-visual presentation. Virtual Wilberforce is a project shared between the University of Hull, the Glasgow School of Art, and the Wilberforce House Museum. The videos were created using motion-capture technology and create the sense that Wilberforce is speaking directly with the visitor. I should note that Virtual Wilberforce is not confined to the museum but can also be seen and experienced at Paragon Station as well. While an innovative addition to the museum, the placement of the screens at times felt crammed in and on one occasion, obscured a text panel.
Where the museum really shines for me is in the Slavery, Abolition, and Contemporary galleries. I was blown away by the comprehensive, honest, and affective approaches used in the interpretation and storytelling about Africa prior to European involvement, the slave trade, the lives of enslaved peoples, and abolition. The thematic approaches used throughout the galleries helped orient me toward stories I was especially interested in, such as the story of enslaved women.
Often when dealing with difficult subject matter, museums tend to mediate this through censorship – choosing not to display especially difficult objects or images – or through various textual interpretation strategies or contextualisations. The Wilberforce Museum does not recoil from exposing the harrowing experiences of enslaved peoples and with some of the stories, objects, and images, the visitor is not shielded from those realities. One image especially sticks in my mind – an engraving of a slave woman being exposed to onlookers as she is auctioned. The museum did not provide further interpretation for the image, choosing to allow it to speak for itself and for the visitor to negotiate the difficult emotions and thoughts brought through the act of witnessing.
While in some cases, this kind of interpretive strategy might be ill-advised, the bulk of the experience as one goes through the museum is emotionally well-balanced. There are parts of the exhibition which turn your stomach, make you angry, make you smile, and make you feel proud. The Wilberforce House Museum has built into its galleries places for visitors to take an ’emotional breath’ before re-engaging.
The biggest surprise for me was the space dealing with contemporary slavery, human rights, and the legacies of slavery. I had not expected the museum would devote so much space to this area but giving visitors the opportunity to better understand the world around them and how it relates to ongoing human rights struggles is clearly incredibly important to them. These exhibitions ground the reality of slavery in contemporary society and give visitors a focus on what they might do to affect change including a section on being conscientious consumers.
Something that became a talking point for me and the others in my group was the Freedom Forum which asks visitors to either agree with or disagree with positions on specific contemporary issues, for example lowering the voting age to sixteen and restrictions on free speech.
The Wilberforce House Museum sticks in my mind as an excellent example of a museum devoted to human rights and telling the full, rich history of Britain’s involvement with slavery. Throughout my visit, I kept remarking that I wish I had known more about the museum before I had done the fieldwork for my PhD research as it would have been an excellent site owing to its strong choices in interpretive strategies, objects, images, and stories. If I have the chance, I will certainly make a return visit.